Jim Cullen, Review of Julian Barnes's "The Sense of an Ending" (Knopf, 2011)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
This novella tells an extraordinary story about a very ordinary man. The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for any number of literary reasons. But one of its most distinctive attributes is its power as a meditation on the way memory is a form of personal historiography. Our master narratives of ourselves change in light our changing circumstances -- and, every once in a while, when previously unknown information about the past prompts (sometimes painful) revisionism.
Tony Webster is a late middle-aged man: recently retired, not-so recently divorced, with a grown daughter and young grandchildren. In measured prose, he tells the reader the story of his life. Most of his tale is dominated by his youth as schoolboy with a group of three other chums in postwar England and in chronicling his first serious romance. These two strands intertwine briefly in early adulthood. That chapter of his life ends unhappily, but he gets on with it and decades later looks back with satisfaction on a career as an arts administrator and an ex-wife with whom he remains on friendly terms. Then, most unexpectedly, he is informed of a small bequest and the existence of a document that he is apparently meant to see but which is also being withheld from him. Disoriented by this set of events, Webster re-opens old relationships that shake loose the cobwebs of his memory. It's hard to be more specific than this without ruining the distinctly low-key but undeniable suspense of the story.
Barnes, who writes crime fiction under the name of Dan Kavanagh, crafts beautiful sentences and shows a deft sense of pacing. If the conclusion is not altogether satisfying, it has an aesthetic as well as mimetic coherence. Indeed the very title of the book suggests both vagueness and a kind of logic. As Barnes himself has said in a recent interview, "Life is not a detective novel." And histories, he might have added, are made to be broken.
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